What Lessons Can Iceland Provide To Boost Innovation?

There have been various attempts in recent years to analyze the creativity and innovative capabilities of countries around the world.  Perhaps the most detailed of these is the annual league table produced by INSEAD and WIPO.  Iceland usually appears high up in such league tables, so a recent study exploring just what it is that makes the country so creative makes interesting reading.

There are some national characteristics that underpin creativity in the country.  For instance, the culture is renowned for it’s open-mindedness, with open and egalitarian families supported by free play and innovation in the education curricula, a strong cultural support for creativity and various government policies to support innovation.

The researchers conducted a series of interviews with Icelanders working in creative professions.  They wanted to examine why the creative output of the country was so high.  For instance, why has 10% of the country published a book?  Why is playing in a band considered a rite of passage?

“You have many people who don’t realize just how creative they are. I haven’t met a single family there that doesn’t have someone in a creative occupation such as the arts, innovative and technological sciences, writing, and new forms of creativity that technology has made possible like gaming and virtual reality,” the authors explain.

Reaping the rewards

20 years ago the country made a concerted effort to introduce more innovative education into their schooling, and this early investment is beginning to bear fruit.  For instance, all children learn how to use tools, and use this knowledge to build and create.  This time is made available due to the relative lack of testing undertaken in Icelandic schools.

“I’d say what that sort of education develops is creative self-efficacy,” the authors say. “Kids learn, ‘I can solve problems with the skills I have and my creativity.’ Most importantly, Icelanders see their education as humane. There’s not much testing and there is a focus on imaginative play. What the teachers will say is, ‘We’re teaching the children to solve problems and care about each other.’”

Interestingly, the authors also believe that attitudes to family life also contribute to the nation’s creativity levels.  Relatively few people marry and so many children are born out of wedlock.  With families generally close, there is sufficient support for the parents to allow them to continue working (and creating), whilst allowing the children to engage in free play.

There is also a distinct acceptance of cultural differences, whether in terms of gender equality, human rights or sexual acceptance.

A supportive environment

The research also revealed that the country has a supportive built environment for innovation to thrive.  Reykjavik has a plethora of makerspaces, cafes, galleries and other artistic venues to encourage creativity.  The government supports many of these facilities to ensure that a wider proportion of the population has access to them.

Interestingly, the unique location of the country also helps, with the long periods of darkness during winter encouraging prolonged bouts of creativity indoors, whilst the long daylight hours in summer, provide time for uninterrupted creation.

“I think of that as a perfect formula for creativity,” the authors say. “Artists often have long periods of productivity followed by down phases of collaborative critique, editing, and reflection.”

Suffice to say, the environment can have disadvantages as well, with small communities leading to over-familiarity with each other and their business, but such tightness also helps talent get noticed.  The authors also reveal that rather than restricting experimentation and variety, these tight communities seem to provide a firm base from which people can experiment and try new things without fear of criticism or failure.

The authors believe that whilst some of these features are sufficiently unique to Iceland to make them hard to apply elsewhere, there are other features that could easily be tested in other countries, especially in terms of the educational culture in the country.